"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" stars Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, and Kevin Michael Richardson. Released on April 5, 2023, the film has two brothers getting transported to an alternate world.
The film was directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, known for creating "Teen Titans Go!". It is based on the video game series by Nintendo. Many video game companies are easily recognizable through their iconic characters. Sega is known for "Sonic the Hedgehog", and the Sony Playstation has the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Sly Cooper, and Kratos from the "God of War" games. In the case of Nintendo, the only video game hero that came to mind when referring to the company is an Italian plumber who saves a princess from a fire-breathing turtle monster. What seemed like an absurd concept, like a hedgehog with super speed, turned out to be one of the biggest gaming phenomenons in existence following the plumber's first appearance in 1981's "Donkey Kong". Regarding the straightforward yet fun games and memorable characters, the "Mario" franchise remains a money-making juggernaut for Nintendo, which generated plenty of installments and iconic sub-games like "Mario Party" and "Mario Kart". It also didn't shy away from extending itself to other media forms like television, comic books, and a "Super Nintendo World" attraction at Universal Studios.
The franchise also took the characters to the world of film, including the infamous 1993 adaptation of "Super Mario Bros". Let's just say that that movie did some things to make Nintendo feel uncomfortable with turning their other properties into big-screen adventures. It remained that way until franchise creator Shigeru Miyamoto met Chris Meledandri, the founder of Illumination, during the creation of Super Nintendo World. Through the collaboration of Nintendo and Illumination, the Mario brothers have finally returned to the silver screen via an animated film 30 years after the release of the 1993 adaptation. With the recent successes of previous video-game movies like "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Uncharted", it was only a matter of time before the iconic plumber got his chance to be in the cinematic spotlight. So was the movie fun and faithful to make us go "Wha-hoo!" or was it another reason Nintendo should feel protective of their game properties? Let's travel to the Mushroom Kingdom and find out.
The story follows Mario (Pratt), a plumber in Brooklyn, New York. He and his twin brother, Luigi (Day), own and operate a struggling plumbing company after leaving a high-paying job led by Foreman Spike (Maniscalco). Their latest assignment sends the brothers into the sewers, where they discover a mysterious pipe that transports them to another world. Unfortunately, the brothers separated during their unexpected travel, with Mario landing in the Mushroom Kingdom ruled by the fearless Princess Peach (Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile, Luigi finds himself in the dreaded Dark Lands, where he is held hostage by Bowser (Black), the king of the Koopas who plans to take over the Mushroom Kingdom with the powerful Super Star. With the help of various characters like the adventurous Toad (Key) and Donkey Kong (Rogen), Mario goes through several trials to protect Peach's kingdom and rescue Luigi from Bowser's wrath.
I've played enough games in the Mario franchise to get myself attached to its charming and vibrant lore, especially the ones involving parties and kart racing. While I don't consider myself a hardcore Mario fan like the rest of humanity, I respect the ambitions of the franchise's variety for its sub-genres, which adds to the fun and challenge of playing them. Of course, I also watched the 1993 film because why wouldn't I? So it was a no-brainer that I was excited to see the video game series try the Hollywood treatment again, this time with Illumination and Miyamoto by its side. This seemed like a promising combination since Illumination is known for delivering harmless kid-friendly entertainment and colorful animation amid its hit-and-miss storytelling and humor. Plus, Miyamoto serving as a producer should help the film be more faithful to the source material due to his high passion for the franchise he created.
Many people were understandably skeptical about the film at first, considering Illumination's track record and unusual casting choices, mainly Chris Pratt as the titular character. However, most of their worries were dashed when the trailers started rolling in, showcasing the accuracy of the characters and world-building through the film's animation and cinematic creativity. Although, they're not enough to ease people's concerns about Pratt's take on Mario. So now the actual test is whether the final product can squash its hurdles, like how Mario crushes the Goombas, to deliver something extraordinary for fans and newcomers.
"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is another video game movie that gets the origin story treatment akin to "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Uncharted", with the brothers encountering the Mushroom Kingdom for the first time. While it hearkens back to what the 1993 film did regarding its plot, the direction allows the newcomers to be introduced to the game's lore through its traditional cinematic storytelling. But the real question is whether this origin story is well-handled. Knowing Illumination as an animation company, the studio understandably doesn't break any new ground with its narratives. Its primary focus is delivering the fun and vibrant aspects of its concepts amid the simplistic story and characters, for better or worse. Unsurprisingly, "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is another example of the studio's objective. Does that make it another suitable addition to the Illumination library? Well, it'll highly depend on your expectations.
The best (and only) way to describe the movie is that it's an Easter Egg paradise for long-time fans of the Mario franchise. "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" offers a never-ending barrage of references and easter eggs originating from the franchise's old and recent games, including the cat power-up from "Super Mario 3D World". So you can clearly see that a lot of love and effort from the filmmakers is 100% present in the movie, which should make plenty of fans say "Mamma Mia" in a good way. This is a massive step in the right direction for Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, the duo behind the divisive "Teen Titans Go" series because the directors understand how precious the source material is to the fans and gamers compared to their irreverent approach for the DC superteam. Unfortunately, what seemed to be one of the film's biggest strengths is also its weakness, mainly due to its story.
The film's plot is as simple as the games it's based on, with Mario and Luigi getting transported to another world and Mario having to rescue his brother from Bowser. However, it's also a David-vs-Goliath tale involving their perseverance to be more than just nobodies. We got Mario striving to help Peach despite his lack of skills and the challenging obstacles blocking his path. There's also Luigi, a timid brother who supports Mario but lacks the courage to protect him, like how Mario protects Luigi. These traits from the plumbing brothers inspire the film's positive messages about never giving up when things get tough. Funny enough, it's similar to playing the Mario games. If you don't give up after getting hit too many times, you'll eventually succeed in rescuing the princess and defeating the turtle monster.
Unfortunately, the film's story struggled to take advantage of its positive role models. While the plot offers many fun, charming, and hilarious moments, it wound up being too basic for its own good, especially for some of its target audience: kids, parents, and Mario gamers. The movie is an hour and a half long, the usual runtime for an Illumination project, but I think it could've been longer regarding the pacing. The film flew as quickly as Bullet Bill, leaving me no time to catch my breath and admire its gorgeous world-building and easter eggs. While it helps keep the kids from falling asleep, the movie's pacing is frenetic enough to make specific newcomers want to play something else instead. Matthew Fogel's screenplay didn't help much, either. Despite having some hilarious jokes and callbacks, the script lacks the substance needed to expand specific character arcs, especially Mario and Luigi and even Mario's rushed relationships with Donkey Kong and Peach. In other words, the movie's plot is like the game itself: all gameplay and no substance.
If they made the film longer and tweaked the script more to balance nostalgia with storytelling appropriately, it might have a better shot at being as good as the "Sonic the Hedgehog" movies. Thankfully, like many other Illumination projects, its flawed plot was quickly overshadowed by the film's engaging blast of entertainment, color, humor, and, more importantly, amusement. For something that involves a plumber battling a turtle monster who's got the hots for a human princess, that's all it needed to be from my perspective. As someone who played a few Mario games, I admired the craft and effort put into making the film an authentic Mario experience that's as delightful as it is irresistibly charming. But, of course, as a movie critic, I find "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" to be another lighthearted and colorful distraction for young audiences that isn't without its issues regarding its substance.
One of the best power-ups the film provided is the voice cast. Illumination is usually known for gathering many recognizable celebrities to voice its characters from the movies, and "Super Mario Bros." is no exception. Unsurprisingly, the cast made a good enough effort to deliver diverting performances. Chris Pratt has been a make-or-break deal for us regarding his voice as Mario, but after seeing what he brought to the table as the iconic character, my concern quickly flew away. It's far from the best Mario performance, but Pratt's take on the character is decent enough to reflect his persevering personality. Charlie Day and Anya Taylor-Joy also delivered entertaining performances as Luigi and Peach, respectively. Finally, there's Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, who's about as Seth Rogen-y as we expect from Seth Rogen.
The studio also occasionally succeeds in the voice direction category for specific actors, with Steve Carell's Gru and Benedict Cumberbatch's Grinch being the best examples. That continues in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie", with Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kevin Michael Richardson being the film's highlights. What else can I say about Jack Black that hasn't already been said? He's wild, enormously enthusiastic, and undeniably funny, making him the perfect fit for the villainous Bowser. Bowser is threatening, sinister, and even a bit scary for the very young kids, but Black's performance sells the character as one of the film's best moments regarding the humor. More importantly, it showcases why Bowser is one of the more memorable villains in video game history. I will also give praise to Keegan-Michael Key for bringing a distinctive voice to Toad compared to his other roles. Then, there's Kevin Michael Richardson, whose voice is entirely unrecognizable regarding his role as Kamek. You would swear that he was voiced by a different actor. These actors alone are part of why voice direction is one of the essential parts of the animation department.
Speaking of which, the animation is another highlight of "The Super Mario Bros. Movie". It's as vibrant, energetic, and cartoonish as one would expect from Illumination. More importantly, the animation balances exceptionally well with the games' accurate character designs and lore. Its style brings life to the "Super Mario Bros." world, from the brightness and serenity of the Mushroom Kingdom to the bleakness and creepiness of the Dark Lands. The world and functions from the games were remade to fit the cinematic appeal, and the result is unsurprisingly a beautiful sight that only the Illumination folks can create. I also love Brian Tyler's musical score for effectively combining its cinematic orchestra with the iconic themes from the franchise's long-time composer, Koji Kondo. Sadly, my only issue is that it also features several pop songs, following in the footsteps of Illumination's other films. It didn't ruin my experience, but I agree that the movie is better off without us hearing "I Need a Hero" in the background.
Overall, "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is a fun and endearing nostalgia-fest with enough power-ups to bypass its noticeable narrative setbacks. Like many other Illumination films, the movie is made to please young kids and parents with its simplicity, vibrancy, and entertainment values. Even though it's too simplistic sometimes, I had a much easier time sitting through the film compared to my experience with the recent "Minions" movie. However, it succeeds the most when it pays full respect to the source material through its easter eggs, characters, and the world's functions while maintaining its sense of joy and wonder. Obviously, it won't win any awards for its storytelling regarding its pacing and script. But if you only want something to provide escapism from the real world or a film that's faithful to the source material, "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is another solid option for your next family outing. Thanks to its entertaining voice cast, an enjoyable yet bare-bones plot, gorgeous animation, and great music, the film is far from super, but it's a joyful adaptation that'll make you say, "Let's a-go!".